19 January 2010


Written by Published in Book Reviews

Among the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature, this Old English epic poem, written sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries, describes the adventures of a sixth-century Scandinavian warrior. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, travels vast distances to prove his strength at impossible odds against supernatural demons and beasts, including Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon. The stuff of heroism, the tale builds up to a final battle after Beowulf’s return to Geatland, where he has become king.

The earliest owner of the original manuscript was 16th-century scholar Laurence Nowell, who was thought to have acquired it through William Cecil when he entered Cecil’s household as a tutor to his ward, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Having suffered fire damage in 1731, there have been concerted attempts to rebind and restore the manuscript, most notably with the use of fibre-optic backlighting to reveal lost letters of the poem. The Icelandic scholar Thorlekin first transcribed it in 1786, publishing the results in 1815 while working under a historical research commission from the Danish government.  

The original text of Beowulf, with translation alongside, can be found second-hand but one is more likely to come across its recent incarnation by poet Seamus Heaney, whose modern version won universal acclaim, and which in turn inspired a film of the tale starring Crispin Glover.

Beowulf (author unknown)

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